Thursday, April 16, 2015

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

The great samurai saga Usagi Yojimbo, by Stan Sakai, is one of my favorite comics sagas of all time. Yet it is unfortunately unknown to so many people. The ongoing adventures of Usagi, a ronin warrior monk, and the assorted friends, rogues, and enemies, are stories I read regularly, over and over again. Imagine an anthropomorphic 17th century Japan, with rabbit samurai, fox thieves, rhinoceros bounty hunters, clans of ninja bats, conniving snake lords... it's as if Carl Barks (Donald Duck Adventures, Uncle Scrooge Adventures) and Akira Kurasawa (Seven Samurai, Roshomon) made comics together.

There is nothing better to do on a lazy afternoon than to get lost in the sword fights, political intrigue, epic battles, and suspenseful monster hunting tales that make up the twenty some odd volumes of this tremendous series. And did I mention the humor? Usagi Yojimbo has it all!

Waaay back, in the early years of this blog, Jesse mentioned Usagi Yojimbo, but I felt it was well worth the time to revisit this great comics samurai epic.

Stan Sakai is one of the greatest serial adventure cartoonists of all time. He's been working on Usagi Yojimbo for over 30 years, and his amazing art, strong and fully realized characters, and incredible storytelling have been consistently fantastic the entire time. His actions scenes are at once powerful, brutal, and yet avoid graphic realism due to the anthropomorphic world he's created. The same is true of his sense of realism and history-- the characters inhabit a vital and exciting seventeenth century Japan in which almost forgotten aspects of everyday life (kite flying, calligraphy, poetry, religion, farming, festivals) become the basis for some amazing adventures.

The core of the book is its characters-- Usagi is everything you want in a hero: compassionate, brave, shrewd, bold, calm in the face of danger, curious but not foolish. But he would not seem nearly so great or fully realized if it weren't for the large cast of characters that he encounters, and revisits, throughout the books. Characters like Gen, his bounty hunting, irascible pal, or Kitsune, the plucky, wandering thief, or Jei, the evil, spirit-possessed murderer. Each of them, encountered regularly over the many issues of the comic, subtly shifts the tone to one of adventure, humor, intrigue or spooky mystery. At the center, of course, is the stalwart Usagi Yojimbo, a fierce, battle weary samurai rabbit, masterless, restless, and always up for adventure.

Above I've selected covers from two volumes that I think are the best to begin with: the stand alone painted graphic novel Yokai, a story in which Usagi confronts supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, and Shades of Death, not the first volume of Usagi's stories, but a great place to jump on, as it came at a time when Sakai shifted publishers, and so had to reintroduce Usagi to a whole new group of readers.

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